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Court of Appeals Asks What Landowners Really Know

On Behalf of | Jun 30, 2022 | Premises Liability and Retail Defense

In a previous blog, we looked at the way the Colorado Court of Appeals explored the idea of causation in premises liability. However, the question of causation was not the only matter under review in the case.

In Martinez v. Cast, the plaintiff claimed that a landowner’s negligence had contributed to two children’s injuries. Specifically, the plaintiff argued the lack of smoke alarms contributed to the children’s burns and the other injuries they suffered when their mother pushed them out of an apartment just before flames engulfed it.

The trial court initially awarded summary judgment to the defendant. The defendant argued that the fire, not the lack of smoke alarms, had caused the children’s injuries. The Court of Appeals argued the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because the question of causation belonged with a jury. It could not be resolved as a matter of law.

Yet that was not the only question the Court of Appeals reviewed. It also explored the standard of care in effect and asked what the property manager might have—or should have—known about the property.

No decision on the relevant standard of care

The Colorado Premises Liability Act (CPLA) allows injured parties to seek compensation from property owners when their injuries result from a landowner’s failure to take “reasonable care” of hazards the landowner knew about (§ 13-21-115). Accordingly, premises liability cases need to establish a standard for reasonable care. In the case of Martinez v. Cast, the defendant argued the plaintiff was using the wrong standard.

The Court of Appeals reviewed the facts:

  • The defendant owned property built between 1978 and 1979. At that time, the standard for care was set by the 1976 Uniform Building Code (UBC).
  • In 2005, the City of Durango passed an ordinance that adopted the 2003 International Fire Code (IFC). That code established the standards for smoke alarms at the time the children’s aunt rented her apartment.
  • In 2015, the City of Durango adopted the 2012 IFC. This updated code contained the same standards for smoke alarms, but it introduced a provision that said additional smoke alarms were not necessary in certain circumstances.
  • The plaintiff asked the court to identify the applicable code. The district court ruled that the 2003 IFC set the applicable standard at the time of the lease and the 2012 IFC set the applicable standard at the time of the fire.

The defendant argued that the district court erred in using the 2003 IFC as the standard of care for the plaintiff’s claims. The Court of Appeals reviewed the issue but did not offer a ruling. Instead, it found that the district court had established two different standards of care for two separate times. It had not determined which applied to the plaintiff’s claims.

The Court of Appeals stated the relevant standard of care is “the one in effect at the time of the alleged negligence.” However, it declined to say which code or standard was in effect because it is the trial court’s decision to make a ruling in the “first instance.”

What do landowners actually know?

Another key concern in Martinez v. Cast is the issue of “actual knowledge.” The CPLA addresses claims “with respect to dangers created by the landowner of which the landowner actually knew[.]”

As every landowner likely understands, this means landowners must deal with the dangers they know about and should not be held responsible for the things they did not know.

However, the Court of Appeals added a layer to this argument by asking what landowners might presumably know. Specifically, the landowner asked the Court of Appeals to affirm the trial court’s summary judgment because she said she lacked “actual knowledge” of a dangerous situation. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, saying the plaintiff had offered enough evidence for the “actual knowledge” to be considered a matter of material fact for a jury’s review, rather than a matter of law.

To this point, the Court of Appeals cited:

  • The defendant’s contradictory statements about her inspection of smoke alarms and her awareness of building codes
  • The 32 years she had spent as a property manager
  • Her real estate broker’s license and participation in continuing education classes
  • The fact she managed hundreds of properties throughout her career
  • Her use of smoke alarms within her own home and business
  • Her inspection of ­the property

The Court of Appeals does not burden landowners with a new presumption of knowledge about building codes and hazards. However, by raising this list, it may have made it harder for experienced property managers to win summary judgments in similar cases. Trial courts may look to this list as reason to review landowners’ actual knowledge as a matter of material fact.

Summary judgments are only for cases with no disputes over material facts

There’s a lot to unpack from Martinez v. Cast, but the Court of Appeals clearly set forth one overriding principle. Trial courts may not offer summary judgments when there are disputes over material facts. They may only offer summary judgments when the only questions are matters of law.